President Obama’s nominee to run the Labor Department on Thursday acknowledged during his Senate confirmation hearing the administration has understated the nation’s unemployment rate.
The Obama administration often touts slow-but-steady job growth and a declining unemployment rate that shrunk to 7.6 percent in March as proof the nation has moved beyond the recession and is headed in the right direction.
But that’s not the whole story, said Thomas E. Perez, the former Maryland labor secretary tapped by President Obama to run the U.S. Department of Labor.
Testifying before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Mr. Perez said a more accurate assessment of the job market would consider the unemployed who have stopped looking for jobs and those who have settled for part-time work.
With those factors added in, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the jobless rate nearly doubles to 13.8 percent.
“In that sense, it understates the unemployment rate,” Mr. Perez, 51, said at the hearing.
The exchange came as Mr. Perez faced some pointed questions from panel Republicans, who have already expressed concerns about Mr. Perez’s record as head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
On Sunday, the Republican lawmakers released a 63-page report accusing Mr. Perez of overstepping his authority at the Justice Department. They raised questions about his role in persuading the city of St. Paul, Minn., to withdraw a housing discrimination lawsuit last year that was headed to the Supreme Court.
Critics contend that Mr. Perez said the Justice Department would stay out of two whistleblower cases against St. Paul, which potentially could cost taxpayers as much as $200 million, if the city dropped the lawsuit.
GOP lawmakers called the quid pro quo a misuse of power.
“That seems to me to be an extraordinary amount of wheeling and dealing,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, the ranking member from Tennessee. “It seems to me you’re manipulating the legal process.”
But Senate Democrats defended his role in the St. Paul case.
“I think the evidence clearly shows that you acted ethically and appropriately at all times,” Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, said at the hearing.
Republicans are also upset about leniency he gave the New Black Panther Party in a voter intimidation case, among other things.
Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, accused Mr. Perez of operating a “politically charged environment” at the Justice Department, where they enforced some laws, but not others.
“Your management style seems to have a political bias,” Mr. Scott said. “It seems not to be open, not to be fair.”
Many Senate Democrats expressed confidence in Mr. Perez’ ability to get the economy back on track.
Asked what his top priority would be, Mr. Perez responded, “Jobs, jobs and jobs. I believe it’s critically important to get Americans back to work, and I believe the Department of Labor can play a critical role.”
“That’s why you’re here: to help our constituents get back to work,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat.
If confirmed, Mr. Perez would play a pivotal role in the administration’s efforts on immigration reform and raising the minimum wage.
It’s unclear whether Senate Republicans plan to block Mr. Perez’ nomination. They’re blocking other nominations from Mr. Obama, including Richard Cordray, who was re-appointed to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But they swiftly approved Mary Jo White to helm the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“You’ve dedicated your life to making people’s lives better,” said Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat.